On Monday afternoon at 1:35 PM, I received an email from the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) inviting me to the Heritage Foundation just four hours later for a screening of Rick Santorum’s new “docudrama,” One Generation Away: The Erosion of Religious Liberty. How could I resist?
It was a cozy gathering. Santorum was there in person, along with the filmmakers, a couple Heritage staffers and interns, and a few others. There was a light reception — featuring egg rolls and fruit kabobs — where I was admittedly a wallflower, but I had a few nice conversations with other attendees. Usually when I revealed where I work, though, individuals were a bit less interested in continuing to talk to me.
As we sat down to watch One Generation Away, Heritage’s Jennifer Marshall introduced Rick Santorum to set up the film. He was dressed casually in a sport jacket with no tie — no sweater vest. (Actually, aside from a few Heritage interns and a fellow liberal, I was the only man in attendance not wearing a jacket, but I did wear a tie to compensate.) An attendee joked about the missing iconic vest during the discussion later. Santorum asked him if he’d been outside, noting that it’s been a bit hot. (True — that’s why I didn’t wear the jacket.)
The former (and possibly future) presidential candidate spoke briefly before the film and explained the concept behind EchoLight, the Christian movie studio he took over last year. In addition to producing Christian-themed films through EchoLight Studios, the primary goal of the effort is to turn churches into theaters. A partner project, EchoLight Cinemas, is recruiting churches as partners who will show EchoLight Studios films in their communities before — and in some cases, in lieu of — theater distribution.
You probably share my skepticism about whether more people will turn out to Christian films if they’re not even in theaters. (I’m honestly not sure if they generally are anyway.) Santorum and the film’s producer and director, who he deferred questions to throughout the evening, boasted that they already have 2,850 churches interested in partnering with EchoLight Cinemas. That means, at least according to their spin, that they’re quickly catching up to the number of commercial theaters in the country. The National Association of Theatre Owners estimates that as of last year, there were 5,317 indoor movie theaters with a total of 39,056 screens in the U.S. Even if the number of participating churches climbs, that really is no guarantee that Cinema Santorum will be reaching more customers, but I suppose some credit is due for sensible audience targeting.
Sitting through this 90-minute film was going to be frustrating enough, but no food was allowed in Heritage’s auditorium, so I was going to have to do it without popcorn (or eggrolls). I was hoping they’d just get going, but Santorum had to take a little bit more time to explain that religious liberty really is under attack and that we have to restore the church’s influence in culture. He highlighted a quote from Chicago Cardinal Francis George, who said in 2010, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”
One Generation Away references a 1961 quote from President Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” The film tries to make this point about religious freedom by highlighting a variety of stories that show Christians — specifically conservative evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics — complaining that they cannot fully realize their religious beliefs.
The film’s subjects are familiar: Hobby Lobby, the Oregon bakers and Washington florist who refused to serve same-sex weddings (“The government shouldn’t force you to bake the cake!” audience members later argued), the Mt. Soledad Veteran’s Memorial with its tall cross on government property, the counseling student who refused to affirm a client’s same-sex relationships, military chaplains who want to evangelize, and the Texas cheerleaders who insist upon using Bible verses on the football team’s banners. The film plods through them one after another, peppering in anecdotes about what the Founding Fathers intended and how there really is no separation of church and state in the Constitution.
The entire film is told through interviews — a lot of them. Even recognizing most of them, it was sometimes easy to forget who was whom. Some prominent figures from the conservative movement didn’t even appear until halfway through the film. I kept saying to myself, “Oh, they got him too!” (It was almost always a “him.”) Folks like Robert George, Mike Huckabee, Russell Moore, Tony Perkins, and representatives from groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom all make appearances to explain just how much religious liberty is under attack. The filmmakers said that they interviewed 75 different people for the documentary and that they had a lot of content that they didn’t use, but which they might release as supplementary material. To their credit, they did interview a few opposing perspectives like Rev. Barry Lynn and Dan Barker as well.
Still, there I was, a gay atheist surrounded by people eagerly nodding in approval — if not lightly cheering in their seats — when Christians refused to serve gay people or even acknowledge the lives we lead. As one gentleman said to me during the reception, “sexual orientation — whatever that is.”
Because watching people just talk at the camera is a bit dull, the film’s visuals are supplemented with newspaper and blog headlines and more stock footage than I’ve ever seen in my life. The footage was mostly cityscapes and people looking American — there’s a city skyline, there’s every single recognizable Washington monument and memorial, there’s some woman buying corn at a farmer’s market, here are some people boating, there’s the NYC subway, etc. At least half the film’s visual content consists of this irrelevant stock footage shown under the interviews, and each clip only shows for a quick second, advancing to the next at a seizure-inducing pace. They used so much random stock footage that I noticed some of it repeating before the film was over.
After hashing through each of the examples of religious liberty infringement, the movie edges briefly into a Nazi comparison. Huckabee recalls how moved he was when he first read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, a call to follow Christ’s teachings published as the Nazis were rising to power. The film proceeds to draw a not-so-subtle parallel, suggesting that the church’s waning influence in the U.S. is identical to Germany in the 1930s. As Cardinal George’s quote seemed to suggest, if the U.S. doesn’t re-embrace Christian values by following Bonhoeffer’s example, there could be a new anti-Christian Holocaust in our near future.
Following an exhaustingly long “call to action” epilogue where just about every interviewee implores pastors to step up and defend religious freedom, the lights came up and the audience applauded.
In the discussion that followed, audience members were particularly interested in discussing LGBT issues. One woman was so thankful — a little choked up about it, actually — for the film’s perspective on these matters because she really struggles with how many same-sex couples live in her Washington, DC neighborhood, such that she sometimes doesn’t even go outside on Saturdays. She apparently engages with them often, and someone once asked her why she couldn’t appreciate — as a woman with a physical disability — the same kind of stigma they experience for their identities. “I didn’t choose to have a disability,” she told them. “You have chosen the lifestyle.” Many nodded and hummed in agreement.
Another audience member was quite taken with an argument Heritage’s Ryan T. Anderson made in the film about businesses discriminating against gay people: “Should a gay-run printing company have to make ‘God Hates Fags’ signs for the Westboro Baptist Church?” “This argument just made so much sense to me,” she said. “I don’t know why we aren’t out there using it more.” Of course, the Phelps clan has its own in-house graphic design studio; they print their own signs.
Santorum did acknowledge during the discussion that he would welcome attacks or pickets from liberal churches, who are invisible in the film. “I’m a dog whistle to the left,” he admitted, taking a no-such-thing-as-bad-press approach to the film’s church-only release later this summer. He even said at one point that he’d wished conservatives had lost the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case if only because it would have forced them to redouble their efforts more passionately. According to Santorum, anything that might fire up local pastors and ministers to speak out more would help advance their “religious liberty” effort and bring the church back to the center of culture where he believes it belongs. “The sooner the fight,” Santorum concluded, “the better.”
As the crowd meandered back to the elevators, I perceived the other audience members as feeling somehow validated. It was as if the film had captured all of their fears and frustrations, and not only were they rejuvenated, but they had a sense of relief that others would soon understand their persecution. As I quietly slipped out, I too felt a sense of relief — to be able to loosen my tie and uncloset my identity.